Dalesman June 2014: The Captain Cook Museum and Great Ayton

For Dalesman this month, I visited Great Ayton’s historians, to hear some of the histories that are told in Great Ayton’s Captain Cook Museum.

Captain Cook, the famous 18th century explorer, was schooled in Great Ayton.  His former school was later converted into a museum celebrating his achievements.

Recently, however, local historians mounted a study into other notable residents of the village, and added displays about them, and the history of the village, to the museum.

The people of Great Ayton are proud of their inheritance, and many volunteer to work in the museum, research the history, or volunteer in the local library, now rebranded the Discovery Centre. Ian Pearce, Hon Sec of Gt Ayton History Society, and Dan O’Sullivan, a Trustee of the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum, told me more.


Ian Pearce and Dan O'Sullivan outside Great Ayton's Captain Cook Museum

Ian Pearce and Dan O’Sullivan outside Great Ayton’s Captain Cook Museum


Quakers in Great Ayton

Dan was impressed by former resident Thomas Richardson, and says, “He did so much. He was originally from Darlington, and was part of a great clan of Quakers living in the North East, who were influential in Great Ayton. Thomas Richardson was big in railways, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and he was one of the people who set up Middlesbrough – he was a financier.”

The former Quaker school in Great Ayton

The former Quaker school in Great Ayton

The influence of the Darlington Quakers can still be seen in Great Ayton today, as there are buildings in the village by one of their favourite architects, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse went on to fame, designing Manchester Town Hall, and the Natural History Museum.

Great Ayton Post Office was designed by Alfred Waterhouse

Great Ayton Post Office was designed by Alfred Waterhouse

Great Ayton Post Office was designed by Alfred Waterhouse

Before coming to live in Great Ayton, Thomas, who lived in the mid 19th century, had gone to London, where he made his fortune in the finance industry. Ian comments, “He and his partners set up a bill-broking business. It was a means of exchanging money without using coins, a sort of early banking. They were trusted because they were Quakers, so they did well.”

Thomas had no children, so he spent his fortune to the benefit of Great Ayton, creating an elementary school that later became the public library.

Great Ayton’s Naval connections

A few years before Cook’s famous journey to Australia, another Naval man, William Wilson, retired to Great Ayton. Dan says, “Wilson was an adventurer. He retired to Ayton Hall. His wife’s family was from here.”

Dan adds, “We’re lucky that we have lots of letters by Wilson and his two sons, one of whom was sent to Russia to learn business. His mother sent lobster pâté to her son in St Petersburg, and asked how it was. She also sent socks. She was always writing and asking how he was, and he never replied. His father was more matter-of-fact – usually telling him to stop borrowing money and work harder.”

The father’s views proved correct, as, says Dan,“Eventually, the son wasn’t allowed to leave St Petersburg because of debt, and his Father had to bail him out.”

Dan, “The good end is that when his father died, the son was the one who made sure there was a proper memorial to his father, in the Church. It’s the scene of a battle Wilson won against the French Frigates. It’s by the altar in the old Church.”

Great Ayton’s history

The volunteer-run Museum has displays about Captain Cook, and of aspects of the village, such as the Old Church, All Saints; Quakers in Ayton; World War II in Ayton; ‘California’ – a 19th century area of housing in the village; and the river Leven and its mills.

The river flows through the centre of the village, splashing musically over many weirs. Ian says, “There’s a big weir that took water for the mills. I’m not sure about the others, I’ve heard that they were built for boys to skate, rather than them making slides on the pavements. But the weirs were probably to retain water. During the week, the big weir diverted most of the water to the mills, and little water went through the village. As all the sewage went into the river, it was smelly. On Sundays, they’d open the sluice gates to wash down the sewage. The little weirs may have held water in the week to stop the river drying up.”

For visitors, the museum provides a self-guided walk around the village.

Captain Cook

Ayton Historians are also excited about the discovery of a new site, recently discovered and believed to the be the first Cook home in Ayton. Further investigations are pending.

Meanwhile, the men speculate about what could have led Cook, the son of a farm foreman, to explore unknown lands on the other side of the world.

Dan thinks, “Clearly his schooling – he must have had an inspirational teacher. He also had patrons.”

Ian adds “He was also very intelligent, very capable, self confident, but modestly so, not cocky. It was a time when Naval officers were up against privilege.

Dan considers: “I think that’s how he got the job of the first voyage. It was an old coaling vessel, and although he had had surveying skills, he was put in a very unusual position. I think it was because he was from the lower decks – the better-off officers didn’t want to do it.”

Dan adds, “More interesting than his intelligence and capabilities, he had two qualities. One was, possibly due to his background, he was used to taking orders. He always carried out his orders to the ultimate degree. For instance, he mapped the East Coast of Australia – what he called New South Wales – when he could have come home. His other quality was incredible self-control. For instance, when all the others – including the officers – were womanising on Tahiti, Cook didn’t – we are led to believe. He was incredibly controlled about drink and sex. It meant that he commanded respect, but sometimes it was too much, and he lost his temper violently. For instance, on one island, a goat was taken by a nameless native. Cook lost his rag and had houses and boats burned. By his third voyage, he was beginning to crack, and probably shouldn’t have gone.”

Ian comments, “History hasn’t looked at that, because he became a hero of Empire.”

Meanwhile, says Dan, “The museum is entirely run by volunteers – and we could always do with more.”


Read more about Great Ayton’s forbears in Dalesman Magazine, June 2014: XXXX: Captain Cook and Great Ayton


Visit Great Ayton’s Museum website

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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